Author   |    Speaker   |    Chief Content Officer

Airbnb: When Content Marketing Looks a Lot Like Art

We’re used to seeing companies producing content marketing that sometimes looks too much like advertising. (Like this. Ick.) But, increasingly, I’m noticing another trend: Content marketing that looks a lot like art.

Yesterday, I wrote about Chipotle’s creepy but awesome new marketing program, “The Scarecrow,” which hauntingly depicts a dystopian world that makes a heart-wrenching statement about the sorry state of industrial food production. (You can read my write-up on it over at LinkedIn.)

Then, last Friday, Airbnb released another bit of awesome, a first: An innovative short film directed via Twitter and shot entirely on Vine. Written by writer/filmmaker Ben York Jones and crowdsourced via Twitter, the story centers on the transformative journey of a white sheet of paper. (Stay with me on this one.) The resulting 4 ½-minute film was released Friday on Airbnb’s blog, on its Hollywood and Vines website and on the Sundance Channel. It’s beautiful. (And remember, this is marketing!)

Take a look:

A few things make the the Airbnb effort stand out for me:

The film isn’t just crowdsourced, it’s directed crowdsourced. Rather than compiling random images from fans and followers (that’s been done already), Airbnb instead provided specific shot directions over five days in August via Twitter (“a paper airplane soars,” “cup is thrown into recycle bin”) marked with the hashtag #AirbnbHV.

Aspiring Vine filmmakers posted their interpretations to Twitter for a chance to be included in the film and win a $100 Airbnb coupon. Starting on August 22nd, different sets of instructions were released between 8 AM and 5 PM, until August 27th. There was a 48-hour window for submissions for each set of instructions, and they were judged based on several weighted criteria (like originality, creativity, video quality and clarity, and so on). Working with B-Reel, film director Miles Jay—who, I’m sure, must find needles in haystacks just to relax on the weekend—then compiled 42-ish best entries into the first-of-its-kind short film.

The collaborative approach extends Airbnb’s roots as a socially connected, innovative business. What Airbnb does is offer a global marketplace that connects travelers seeking authentic, high-quality accommodations with hosts who offer unique places to stay. Creating a film rooted in connection and social innovation subtly underscores the underpinnings of Airbnb itself. Or not-so-subtlely, I suppose.

It tells a bigger story. As I say all the time: The paradox about content marketing is that your story is not about you; it’s what you do for others.

So Chipotle might be a fast-food company, but its story isn’t about how you can get a cheap but good Mexican lunch on the fly. Instead, it’s about what it stands for: Good food that’s locally and responsibly sourced. You can see that key bigger message incorporated in the animation I wrote about the other day: Cultivate a better world.

Similar to Chipotle (and the best content marketers, for that matter), the goal of the short Airbnb film was broader than its business. The film’s bigger idea, according to the Hollywood and Vines site, is that “Airbnb and the global community will help create a story of travel, adventure and finding your place in the world.”

Which is—guess what? —exactly the focus of the bigger Airbnb story, too.

What Airbnb sells is a way for people to monetize their extra space and showcase it to an audience of millions. But what Airbnb does for others—what its bigger story is—is that it offers the kind of seamless and easy travel adventure that allows us to all discover our place in the world.

As my friend Tom Fishburne says, “The best marketing doesn’t feel like marketing.”

In Airbnb’s case, at least, the marketing feels like art.

So it this marketing? Or is this art? Yes.

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25 Responses to Airbnb: When Content Marketing Looks a Lot Like Art

  1. It is definitely marketing (imo), but it has been done with a deep understanding of who the AirBnB customer is — often creative people who want to be a part of a community of like-minded people. People who are trusting enough to stay at someone else’s house, and who are interested in connecting with each other.

    The added facet of direction (or structure) starts to break down the “the internet is a mess of random tweets about what someone ate for breakfast” and moves it into a new space as a creative tool. We are moving from me to us.

    This whole thing also really reminds me of something that Bob Kuperman said about working with creatives (at DDB): giving creatives the kernel of an idea and asking them to riff off of that helps turn that blank page into the beginning of something that they can own rather than a scary space to fill. (I am paraphrasing.)

    Thank you for sharing and inspiring with your point of view.

    • Ann Handley says:

      True, Shannon. I like the idea of the directed screen-shots, especially: The idea of using a social platform (in this case, Twitter) as a storytelling platform is interesting to me.

      I talk a lot about using social platforms to TELL a story. But to use it to CREATE the story, too? Wow.

      Thanks for chiming in!

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  6. Peter Gold says:


    Great post and thank you for making your external links open in a new tab; so much easier to read 🙂

    the trick now is to create great, interesting content on a small business budget which I know can be done. And if they just tell their story, what they stand for, why they are passionate about what they do, that will be enough IMHO.


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  13. Ellin McHarg says:

    I shared this terrific article with all of my creative colleagues as we’ve been having an ongoing discussion about new ways to showcase content. This is clearly the content marketing direction of the future and we need to start looking at ways to start implementing it now. Thanks!

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